The Dark Path (Doctor Who)
-David A. McIntee
A good superhero origin story should be a combination of factors. It should show us how to be better people while grounding us in the real human world. Captain America, or Spiderman, or Superman all have origin stories that show them making the decision to be good people, even if their lives are touched by the fantastic. A hero who lacks that grounding is, at best, an antihero. At worst he’s a supervillain himself. Far too many superhero origin stories turn into trite moral lessons.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for a good supervillain origin story. It should show how weaknesses (pride, or suchlike) bring down a man and turn him into a villain. Hal Jordan’s transformation into an evil monster was well done; blinded by rage and loss, Hal turned into a monster who destroyed the Green Lantern Corps. DC Comics, by using a cheap plot device to retcon the whole of Hal’s fall, ruined what was one of their most promising stories. The most compelling villains have always been the ones who were once good people, and fell. They were responsible for their own failings and defeats.
I had heard of The Dark Path before RTD gave the Master, the greatest Doctor Who villain, an origin story of sorts. I found his version unsatisfactory. The Master could not have been driven mad by a constant drumming in his head, if only because none of the pre-RTD incarnations of the Master referred to it, even during their most dramatic moments. And then the Master’s appearance in The End of Time was, at best, erratic. By making the Master the victim of someone far darker, the whole ethos of the Master was cheapened. He could not be termed responsible for his own actions, let alone his fall into depravity. And let’s face it – at one point, the Master had to be someone the Doctor liked.
Compared to the RTD-Master, The Dark Path is a work of genius.
Set during the era of the Second Doctor (although tied into the backstory created for the Seventh Doctor New Adventures), the story focuses around a lost colony of the Terran Empire (presumably no connection to the Great and Bountiful Human Empire of the Ninth Doctor). The Imperials have been studying the DarkHeart, a faded neutron star. These Imperials seem frozen in time from an era when the Empire was still in its glory, and are determined to destroy all real and imagined enemies of the Empire -- including a fleet of Veltrochni ships that happen to pass through the system. The Veltrochni are unwilling to take this lying down and start launching a mission of revenge, interrupted by the appearance of a cruiser from the Federation (which replaced the Terran Empire). This rather Star Trek-like plot is interrupted by the arrival of the Doctor and a mysterious man called Koschei. Koschei, who is clearly a Time Lord in his own right, seems just like the Doctor, complete with TARDIS and a companion, the young Ailla.
Glossing over parts of the plot, the DarkHeart can be used to rewrite entire sections of time and space. This allows the Imperials to use it to change the DNA of non-human crew on the Federation ship into human DNA (causing no end of confusion) and threaten to turn the Federation into a human paradise. Sadly, Ailla is killed in the fighting and Koschei vows to attempt to restore her, using the DarkHeart to rewrite history. He starts helping the Imperials to control the DarkHeart, planning to betray them all the while, once he gets what he wants from the affair. The Doctor, once he realises what is going on, tries to stop him.
But what Koschei doesn’t know is that Ailla isn't human either. The Time Lords didn't exactly trust Koschei and gave him a Time Lord supervisor, disguised as a human. She didn't die at all, merely regenerated. Having already compromised himself when he started on his mad quest to restore his friend, Koschei goes mad. The Master has been born.
"What's happened to you?" the Doctor asked, genuinely worried for his friend.
"My people mistrust me; I kill one of my best friends who was sent to me by the other; and both betray me. I have found myself, Doctor, and I am the stronger for it."
Overall, the Doctor and the Master push everyone else out of the spotlight. The author captures them both very well; indeed, you can almost hear the actors speaking their lines. In a written version of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, there is a clear difference between Koschei - a neutral observer who's obviously Delgado but suavely efficient – and the Master, of whom we all know. One could nitpick the scene where the Master becomes the Master, yet it beats the RTD version by miles. Jamie and Victoria come across, at first, as a bit wooden, but eventually they sound more like their actor counterparts. Victoria, though, does get influenced by Koschei – a rather droll reminder of Jo Grant’s first encounter with the Master.
The supporting cast come across very well. I rather enjoyed some of the banter on the Federation starship and their struggles to understand what was going on around them. I do have a nitpick – if the crew were transformed into humans, why didn't their memories change as well – but that’s largely harmless. We have appearances from a dozen races created for Doctor Who over the years, all fun.
Overall, this isn't the best ‘Origin of the Master’ story – that honour goes to a piece of fan fiction, The Naming of Things (http://ariafic.dreamwidth.org/6815.html) – that I have read, but it is pretty fun – and far better than RTD’s version.